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Brünnich, Johannes Christian (1861–1933)

by T. J. Beckmann

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Johannes Brünnich, n.d.

Johannes Brünnich, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 182233

Johannes Christian Brünnich (1861-1933), agricultural chemist, was born on 11 September 1861 at Görz, Austria-Hungary (now Gorizia, Italy), son of Christian Christoph Brünnich, Lutheran pastor and mathematician, and his wife Pauline Therese, née Kühne. Reared in Bohemia, he went with his family to Stäfa (canton Zurich), Switzerland, in October 1874 and won entry to the Federal Polytechnic School (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) at Zurich. There he studied chemistry under Viktor Meyer and Georg Lunge and was briefly Meyer's personal assistant. After graduation he worked in sugar-beet factories in Bohemia and Russia, and for a firm of wholesale druggists in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia.

In 1884, while performing Swiss military service as a lieutenant of field artillery, Brünnich met Dr J. J. Müller, a pioneer physician of Gayndah recently returned with his family from Queensland, who inspired him to migrate early in 1885. He became manager of a sugar-refinery and maltings at Bulimba near Brisbane. On 22 April 1886 he married Kate Terry, daughter of a Brisbane watchmaker. After briefly managing a sugar-mill at Darwin, he joined the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. in April 1887 as chemist and manager at the Homebush mill near Mackay.

By 1897 Brünnich was so respected that he was offered and accepted the position of government agricultural chemist in the new Queensland Department of Agriculture. Initially, he was also lecturer in chemistry at the new Agricultural College at Gatton, but from 1900 was free to devote all his time to departmental work. Although his plans for experimental sugar-stations were almost completely adopted, he protested about the inadequacy of his budget for 1901-02 and quarrelled with the under-secretary for agriculture, and was nearly dismissed. After a long discussion of the question during the parliamentary debates on the departmental estimates, Brünnich held his job but was subordinated to Dr W. Maxwell. The two clashed constantly and this unhappy conflict had repercussions throughout his career.

More than sixty papers by Brünnich on applied chemistry, soils, and plant and animal nutrition examined the problems and possibilities of agriculture in Queensland: the quality of his work was attested by (Sir) David Rivett, Sir John Russell and other scientists. Before 1899 he recommended a survey and an exhaustive analysis of Queensland soils, a topic to which he frequently returned. He investigated water pollution in 1899 and showed how sugar-mills could safely discharge waste into streams. Next year he began work on fodders, grasses, poisonous plants and the separation of useful substances from native plants and trees.

Brünnich moved with his laboratory to Brisbane in 1902 and in 1905 regained sole control of his organization. He was vice-president of the Royal Society of Queensland in 1907, president in 1908 and treasurer in 1909-14. In the years before 1918 he worked on Queensland wheat quality, performing both chemical analysis and milling and baking tests. He advised the government on the sugar industry and helped to establish payment for cane by analysis — probably one of his most important achievements.

Naturalized at Homebush in December 1891, Brünnich subsequently became an enthusiastic captain commanding the Gatton squadron of the Queensland Light Horse. Like most enemy aliens, he suffered embarrassing government interference during World War I and in 1920 was still trying to secure the return of confiscated personal papers. After the war he continued his work on animal nutrition, and prepared legislation relating to fertilisers, stock foods, margarine and pure seeds for which no precedents existed. Despite a busy professional life he found time to examine in chemistry at the Queensland College of Pharmacy and Chemistry. A foundation member and fellow of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, he was also a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain (now Royal Chemical Institute). Brünnich wrote for the farmer as much as for the scientist and had the gift of elucidating difficult concepts. His Elementary Lessons on the Chemistry of Farm, Dairy, and Household, first published serially in 1906 in the Queensland Agricultural Journal, had monograph editions in 1912 and 1922 and was a text in rural colleges for many years.

Kindly, fun-loving, and enthusiastic in manner, with an unusually liberal outlook for his times, Brünnich was often blunt with superiors; although his colleagues sometimes mimicked him behind his back, they still revered him. When he retired in September 1931 he left to his successor a laboratory with a high reputation. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died of cerebro-vascular disease on 3 July 1933 and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £3743.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Agriculture and Stock, Annual Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1898-1901, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1902-31
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1906, 2093
  • Queensland Agricultural Journal, Sept 1931, and for publications
  • Queenslander, 6 July 1933.

Citation details

T. J. Beckmann, 'Brünnich, Johannes Christian (1861–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brunnich-johannes-christian-5404/text9155, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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